Uli Beutter Cohen, BETWEEN THE LINES

Uli Beutter Cohen, BETWEEN THE LINES

Zibby is joined by the creator of the Subway Book Review Uli Beutter Cohen to discuss her new book, Between the Lines: Stories from the Underground. The two talk about the number one reason Uli has found people enjoy reading books on the subway, in particular, the creative way Uli organized the chapters in the book, and some of their favorite interviewees (which includes Zibby herself!). Uli also shares what she’s currently working on now and the surprise moment that shows her how important her project truly is.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Uli. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss Between the Lines: Stories from the Underground.

Uli Beutter Cohen: I’m so happy to be here with you. Thank you for having me.

Zibby: It was so fun when I first met you and seeing Shakespeare & Co on Lex all with your book in the window. It was amazing. You were so excited. Then you were so nice to take my picture at the subway entrance about a book that I had been reading. I think it was Smile by Sarah Ruhl. It’s nice coming back together these months later and chatting.

Uli: Absolutely. It feels like a whole decade has passed since. So many things have changed. So much is going on. Let’s talk about all things Between the Lines and books. I’m always here for that.

Zibby: I was so drawn into the stories of this book that I kept being like, okay, I have to go to bed, but I just want to read one or two more. Let me just see what this guy said. Let me see what this girl said. Basically, the premise is that you interview people reading books of any type on the subways. Then you post them. You have this whole thing, right? Did I say that…?

Uli: It’s a whole thing. You’re absolutely right. It’s a whole thing, yes.

Zibby: It’s a whole thing with this very successful Instagram account and all the rest. First of all, I was totally energized that people actually were reading hardcover books, or softcover, actual physical books enough for you to talk to them. This whole book made me think that Wi-Fi is the anti-book. Whenever there is Wi-Fi, the books disappear.

Uli: Absolutely true. There’s so much to be said. I’m trying to collect a concise thought. I’m just about to have my morning coffee, so bear with me. I think that Wi-Fi is the antidote to mindfulness, period, or the antagonist or whatever you want to call it. What is a book? A book is really a moment for us to dive into our inner selves and to explore who we are through the lives of others. I think that Wi-Fi is interrupting that experience in so many ways in our lives, but absolutely when it comes to reading. A lot of the people I have interviewed — by now, it’s been well over a thousand people for the last eight years. They all say the same thing. They say that when there’s no Wi-Fi present is when they actually have time to read. When we purposefully create a space of less distractions, that’s when we can really dive in. I’ve noticed that on the various train lines. The trains that do have Wi-Fi have way less readers on them. I have to be honest with you. Since the pandemic, of course, reading on the subway has changed tremendously. That’s a whole other topic. In the eight years that I was riding the subway every day front to back — I’ve ridden every train line that you can imagine in New York City. It really was this almost, dare I say, sacred chaotic space in which while there was so much going on in the subway, also, there was no Wi-Fi. Of course, people had time to read.

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. I hadn’t really even given it much thought. Even on airplanes, everyone used to read on airplanes. Now I’m the only one reading on an airplane.

Uli: It’s Wi-Fi. Sorry, what were you going to say?

Zibby: Maybe there could be some sort of campaign, like a reading plane that doesn’t have Wi-Fi or something.

Uli: That flight would be so booked out. The tickets would be so expensive, but it would be so worth it.

Zibby: We could say Book It. You know, book?

Uli: Yes, oh, my god.

Zibby: Maybe that’s what the airline should be called. I’ll call it Book It. There will be no Wi-Fi. You will have to read. Every month, you can be part of the Book It Book Club, a whole thing.

Uli: Another whole thing. The ideas are flowing this morning. That’s what I love. That’s why I love speaking with you. You’re amazing. You’re like, let’s take this to the next level. Not just a book club. Let’s have a whole airline where reading is what brings us together. Screw travel. No, we’re not here to get to a destination. We’re here to dive into this fictional world or nonfictional world. We love a nonfictional world, especially as we’re talking about Between the Lines. I think that’s just really so true. There’s so much on our minds. Our lives are so demanding. I think we have completely lost track with how many hours we actually have in a day because we’re now all so used to multitasking. We’re not used to not multitasking. A book is truly the only thing you cannot multitask. Name anything else that you cannot multitask like a book. You can even read something on your Kindle or on your phone, and a notification might pop up. Actually, I don’t own a Kindle. Full disclosure. I don’t know if they have notifications.

Zibby: I don’t know. I don’t own a Kindle either.

Uli: If you’re reading on a device, a notification can pop up and can take you right out of it. The place where you’re really spending time with a story is the place where you can turn a page, in my humble opinion.

Zibby: Totally. I totally agree. I loved how you organized the people that you spoke to. You have food. You linked them in such a clever way. Somebody would read about Kitchen Confidential. Then you would have somebody who was a chef. It was just very cool how you linked it all. There were so many people in here, by the way, who have been on this podcast, like Glynnis MacNicol and Laurie Woolever and Debbie Millman, so many. It was really neat to hear their reflections. It’s not about books. It’s about what they’re reading, which is what’s so fascinating. It’s just unique, what you did. I love it. It’s very cool.

Uli: Thank you so much. Actually, I can share a little Easter egg with you that not many people know. Since you’re talking about how the stories have been edited and arranged, that took so much time. I can’t even begin to tell you how much time that took. I loosely took the Major Arcana that you would find in a tarot reading, which is the hero’s journey — you start at The Fool. You end at The World. Throughout, the character goes through these trials and tribulations. That’s how I have arranged the chapters. Then within the chapter, I wanted to really find these moments that New York is so known for, which is that it’s such a big city in a metropolis, but it’s also such a tiny village. We are linked with each other in beautiful ways and in unpredictable ways where, yes, you can see Anthony — well, you could see Anthony Bourdain smoking a cigarette on the street and then later on meet his longtime assistant who has edited his books with him and have a beautiful conversation even years later about who he was and what he meant and what characters like him and people like him mean to New York. That is something that truthfully exists, again, I think when we’re not looking at our phones. Sorry to be that person to harp that point. When we look up and when we look at the people that surround us and the stories that surround us, there’s so much richness in life. I hope that my book reminds of that, that we’re surrounded by beautiful stories and that all we have to do is maybe ask a question that can be as simple as, hey, what are you reading?

Zibby: It’s amazing. There was one — who was the Nigerian queen? All these things are so cool. I loved this, Marquis Williams. He said, “I’m from Harlem. I’m thirty-two years old, and I got my start as a stockboy at a wine shop on the Upper West Side. I’ve worked at wine shops all over the city, always filling in shifts everywhere. I moved to shipper. Then I became a salesperson, a manager, and then a buyer. Now I run my own wine club called Highly Recommended, and I have my own wine coming out.” How cool is that?

Uli: Such a New York story, isn’t it? It’s classic. Marquis is amazing. He has become a friend. We’ve spent time with each other outside of asking each other on the subway about books and the things that we’re into. His wine club is actually really phenomenal. This is a gentle plug, but I really just — I’m a recently alcohol-free person, so this is hilarious. His wine club is absolutely phenomenal. He delivers it to your door. I’m actually going to partner with him this fall. I’m going to curate an alcohol-free wine section in his wine club. Meeting people in New York is so much fun. Sometimes you need a little bit of an excuse. Sometimes you can be very direct. There’s a bit of a feeling for longtime New Yorkers that we’ve lost so much that the city had to offer and that the city is changing so much. I also want to say we’re still here. We’re still around. Phenomenal people are walking these streets. We just have to look and go ask. We’re here. We’re absolutely here. We’ve gone nowhere.

Zibby: It’s so great what you did. It’s like you’ve made the city much smaller and more intimate. No one is looking for connection on the subway. People avoid each other’s eyes as much as they can. Even in your scene where you were like, I caught this woman’s eye across the train, and then I walked over to her, I’m thinking, oh, no. What’s going to happen? I hope she’s okay.

Uli: The worst.

Zibby: Luckily, she was great. There’s something trustworthy about readers. She was open to it and started your whole thing. If we just know a little bit, if you just know one page from someone’s story, it changes your whole perception of them.

Uli: Beautifully said. Full disclosure, my book came out last year in November, and it was a really big reckoning. I’m a person who has not given birth, biologically speaking. This book, because there are so many stories and so many lives captured in it, it really felt like this gigantic birthing moment. I was freaking exhausted. I think I had postpartum depression, to be honest, quite frankly. I really was so down in the dumps after because it was such a gigantic, monumental thing. This is a collection of eight years of work. I mentioned that this is something that I’ve been doing for such a long time. I’m doing something that I wish a lot of moms would get to do, since we’re talking about a very specific audience here. I know that you might be like, you’re absolutely crazy. This is not possible. What I did after I had this gigantic birthing moment, I — I think this translates to projects. This translates to our career. This doesn’t translate to a physical child because you can’t do this with a person. When we have these big moments, I think it’s also okay to step away for a moment after and to say, okay, let me see who you want to be. Let me see who you want to become. That is what I’ve done. Currently, Subway Book Review is on hiatus. I say that very honestly. I also have to tell you honestly that right now, I’m talking to you from Los Angeles. I’m here for a project. I’m not in New York. It is so healthy to give the things you love space. I feel like I’ve really, really had to do that.

Then the most beautiful little moment happened. I had stepped away from the subway for a moment. I had stepped away from New York City for a moment, not because I don’t love them, but just to give it space and to let myself breathe and to let myself come back to me and what I want to create next as an artist and as a person in this world who has ambition and who has dreams and who has unfulfilled hopes. I stepped away. I looked at it. I’m giving it a time to be itself. Then this beautiful thing happened where I got a phone call from a man named Carl. This is so New York. No, sorry, I got a text message from a man named Carl. Carl just said, “Are you coming to dinner on Tuesday? We really need to know.” I said, “I don’t have dinner plans with a man named Carl. I’m very sorry, you have the wrong number.” Carl said, “No, no, no. We’ve been emailing you since May.” I got this text message in June. “We really hope that you can make it.” I said, “Carl, I’m in Los Angeles right now. I’m not in New York. I really don’t know you. This is an unknown number. Please forgive,” and wanted to end the conversation. Carl said, “Then we’re going to mail you the award.” I said, “Carl, what award are you talking about?” I finally called his. I said, “You need to explain this to me a little bit more.” He said, “The New York Press Club has just awarded you the Heart of New York Award.” I cried on the spot. I’m crying right now because it was such an amazing affirmation that stepping away is okay and that giving something space is okay and that coming back to yourself is okay. It was such a fantastic, beautiful moment.

Zibby: That makes me so happy. You earned that. It’s so true. You captured the heart of New York. Nobody else did what you did. It’s amazing journalism. It is.

Uli: Thank you.

Zibby: It’s emotional journalism. It’s location-specific, emotional journalism.

Uli: I love emotional journalism. I love this. You know what? I’m a triple water sign. I’m going to write this down. Emotional journalism, that is absolutely it. I think that there’s such an assumption that when you self-assign a beat or when you decide what you want to report on and it’s not coming from your boss’s desk, that that makes it less of an adventure or less of a journey or less something that takes every moment of your life into a new direction or also that maybe because it wasn’t assigned by someone else, that it’s less valuable or less worthwhile. I also want to say to everyone who’s listening, that is not true. The journeys and the adventures and the stories that you self-assign are the absolute most valuable ones. They’re going to take you the furthest and the farthest and the deepest into who you are and who you are in the world. That’s something I very much took away from creating this book. Not only did I see everyone else different, but I also see myself differently, a hundred percent.

Zibby: I’m sorry, we’re having a little birthday party behind me here. We’re just going to roll it because this is the name of my show.

Uli: I can hear it. That’s great.

Zibby: Sorry about that. What are you doing in LA? You’re being very cagey about it. I’ll put myself on mute so you don’t have to hear this.

Uli: Wait, I love that you just called me in. You said I’m being cagey about it. I love it. You know what? I guess I am being cagey about it. In a way, I’ve also learned that I don’t have to share everything on social media immediately the moment that it happens. I’ll tell you, of course. I’m working right now with a company called StyleLikeU. It’s a really fantastic mother-daughter duo. They make documentary films and series that are focused on gender identity, sexuality, and how to stand in your power. They’re really leading this beautiful self-acceptance revolution. I’m currently working with them. We’re creating some new original concepts that I’m very excited by.

Zibby: That is amazing. I am so excited about that too. That’s really cool. Good for you. I love this whole idea that there is something more valuable or that you’re addressing this preconceived notion that it’s more valuable to be assigned something. Sometimes I feel that way, too, if I write a personal essay for no reason. Even these podcast interviews, nobody is assigning me to do this, but it’s so fun and amazing. I think when you’re doing something that you’re truly doing out of love and interest, people will feel that right away. I hope.

Uli: A thousand percent. Self-assigning is so powerful. It’s so valuable because if we didn’t do that, we wouldn’t have these breakthrough moments. We’d be hearing the same stories over and over again from the same people. The only way that we’re creating revolution in storytelling, which is, of course, BIPOC-focused, LGBTQIA+-focused — it’s focused on letting women be storytellers because traditionally, that’s also something, for a long time in the patriarchy, that has been very male-centered. We need to get out of that kind of thinking. The storytellers, really, if we look to the indigenous practices — of course, we’re reading books like Braiding Sweetgrass where we’re learning about our inherent connection to nature and our inherent connection to storytelling. It’s the same. We’re reading books by bell hooks called All About Love that are bringing us back to our inherent feelings and emotional landscape. Yes, we read these books, but then we digest it. We need to say, what do we do with that? How does that show up in our work? How does that show up in us as being of service to other people?

I think especially for women, it is so important to tell stories and to share stories. There are so many that I want to hear. Maybe this is the contrarian, non-popular opinion on this kind of podcast, but — as I mentioned, I’m in LA right now. I’m in a really beautiful sublet five hundred steps from the beach in Venice. I grabbed a random bag that had a beach blanket in it. Of course, that bag came with a book. It’s, sixteen writers share their choice on not having children, sixteen essays. I was like, okay, cool. Let’s dive into that. Let’s see what the person who owns this apartment is interested in regarding that topic. It’s a topic I’m thinking about myself as well. It’s these kismet moments where I’m like, yeah, I want to hear more stories about that. I also want to hear more stories about motherhood and what that really is like and the value that we place on women’s bodies. You know I could go on and on and on about this. We don’t have the time. I just want to say, we need your stories. We need all of our stories so much, so badly. We’re so thirsty for them.

Zibby: Amazing. Thank you. By the way, it is not just moms listening to this at all. I don’t even know what percentage of moms are listening. I know for a fact there are many non-moms listening.

Uli: Of course, we’re all here. Of course, we are all here.

Zibby: This was so — it just made me feel and feel connected to everybody all within these pages, which sounds so hokey. These casual photos and then little excerpts from people’s souls and then how you have Glynnis but then later you have Glynnis’s book, it’s very smart and very cool. Between the Lines: Stories from the Underground, everybody take note. Get ready for our Book It flight. I’m going to pursue that.

Uli: Please do. We have to do it. I’m going to book my ticket.

Zibby: Maybe not a whole airline. Maybe a limited flight. I don’t know.

Uli: I see you taking notes right now. You’re just scribbling.

Zibby: I’m writing it down. I have my list of insane ideas. I try to keep them all on paper before they flutter away.

Uli: Bless you. I love it.

Zibby: Thank you for coming on. I loved meeting you when I met you. Maybe I’ll see you in LA. I’m going to be there a lot. We’ll connect.

Uli: I’ll be back in New York. You know you can’t take me out of that city. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Take care. Thanks so much. Buh-bye.

Uli: Bye.

BETWEEN THE LINES by Uli Beutter Cohen

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